Egyptian state prosecutors on Thursday ordered the release of three senior members of one of the country’s most prominent human rights groups after a high-profile international campaign calling for their freedom.
Gasser Abdel Razek, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Karim Ennarah, director of its criminal justice unit, and Mohamed Basheer, its administrative director, had been arrested over the past three weeks and charged with membership of a terrorist organisation.
Activists said the crackdown appeared to be connected to a meeting they held at their offices for 13 western ambassadors and senior diplomats to brief them on the human rights situation in the country.
The detentions sparked an international wave of criticism of the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the president and former military chief, with calls to free the activists coming from a range of western governments and international organisations. The UN, the US, the EU and the incoming administration of Joe Biden, the US president-elect, all spoke out against the arrests.
Activists also managed to mobilise a campaign of support from international film stars including Scarlett Johansson, Emma Thompson and Joseph Fiennes, who recorded videos circulated on social media calling for the release of the human rights workers.
Patrick Zaki, another EIPR staffer studying for a masters in Italy, has been detained since February when he travelled to the country for a holiday. He faces charges that include uttering false news and inciting protests. He is not among those ordered released on Thursday.
Security forces had also ordered the freezing of EIPR’s assets and a terrorism court is due to confirm or reject the move on Sunday. It is not clear if the hearing will still go ahead and if the charges against the three human rights workers will be dropped.
Mr Sisi has presided over one of the harshest crackdowns on dissent in Egypt’s modern history since he came to power in a popularly backed coup in 2013 in which he ousted his elected Islamist predecessor.
Since then tens of thousands of Islamists have been arrested and detentions have also extended to secular critics of the regime, journalists and democracy activists.
Human rights groups have criticised the use of vague charges that are often levelled at critics — including membership of an unspecified terrorist organisation or “sharing the aims” of a terrorist group. They have also voiced concern about the use of lengthy pre-trial detention as a form of punishment for peaceful dissent.
Mr Sisi’s supporters said he has brought stability to the country, built infrastructure and introduced necessary economic reforms after the years of upheaval that followed the country’s 2011 revolution. Critics, however, are concerned about the disappearing space for peaceful dissent and the harsh methods used against opponents.